MINNEAPOLIS – North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips brought a prop to his press conference Thursday as tangible proof of just how much life has changed since his team earned its inaugural bid to the NCAA tournament.
Phillips held up a standard dry erase board that he used during the season to draw plays. He then held up a fancy new one that he got after his team became a national media darling as a tournament Cinderella story.
“There’s no way I would draw up a play on here and it doesn’t work,” he joked.
The Bison could use some magic plays today when they face defending national champion Kansas in the first round at the Metrodome. For those unfamiliar with college basketball history, this represents a textbook David vs. Goliath matchup, at least in terms of the participants’ tournament resume.
No. 14 seed NDSU is making its tournament debut in its first season of eligibility as a Division I school. The third-seeded Jayhawks are making their 38th tournament appearance a year removed from winning the national title.
Kansas recruits McDonald’s All-Americans. NDSU has eight Minnesotans on its roster and is led by four fifth-year seniors who red-shirted as freshman so that they might get this one opportunity.
“I think we fit the underdog role,” Bison senior guard Mike Nelson said. “I don’t think there’s really any pressure on us coming into this game. It is more pressure on the higher seeds.”
“I was greatly disappointed that President Obama didn’t pick us in his brackets,” Phillips said in mock disgust. “But other than that, everything else is fine.”
The Jayhawks understand they are expected to win, even if they don’t admit it publicly. They have an All-American point guard in Sherron Collins, one of college basketball’s best centers Cole Aldrich, and they won the Big 12 regular-season title despite losing five players to the NBA draft following their championship season.
The Jayhawks, however, are relatively young, which makes things less predictable.
The Bison’s hopes might rest on how they handle the big stage. Phillips said he felt more pressure before the Summit League tournament, but his players got a glimpse of what to expect when they practiced at the Metrodome on Thursday.
“There was a little wide-eyed there,” Phillips said. “Certainly seeing Kansas on the front of their jerseys will provide a little bit of a spike in the heart rate as well.”